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Interview: Brian Wheeler (Designer, Warhammer Online)

Mythic Entertainment's Brian Wheeler

At the New York Comic Con earlier this month, I took some time to stop by the Electronic Arts booth, where I sat down for a conversation with Brian Wheeler, Senior Designer on Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. He had a lot of insights into the development of the massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game inspired by the Warhammer tabletop game franchise. Check out the full interview transcript below.

Warhammer Online is based on a tabletop game. How was that transition from tabletop to video game made, particularly from the small-group format of a tabletop to the massively-multiplayer format?

A lot of the lore, the look, and the feel of the game we pulled right out of Games Workshop. We actually worked very closely with Games Workshop over the 3 or 4 years of game development, so all of the characters have all gone through Games Workshop confirmation. They said, "yes that looks good, no that doesn't look good, of course you can't have a dragon look like that, yes you can have a dragon look like that, no the Gates of Ekrund can't look like that." So we stuck very true to the lore and the look of all the characters. We did a lot of iconic character classes. Some of the classes we're getting ready to come out with soon are the Choppa and Slayer [...] Everyone sees the red mohawk and they say "Oh, Warhammer!"

What is the current support for guilds and large battles?

The largest battle we can do right now is in the fortress zone where we have the population capped out so that around 300 people can be fighting each other in a fortress zone. We're trying to increase that as much as possible because open-world Realm vs. Realm is what our game's all about. So we're trying to always streamline our code and make the server handle more players. We're always trying to help that number. Right now you though you can look to around 200 to 300 people hammering on each other in a fortress zone. It's crazy how many people we can pack in there.

How does Warhammer differentiate itself from its competitors - quite simply, why should people be playing Warhammer instead of World of Warcraft?

The biggest difference with our game is Advanced Player Quests (or Public Quests we call them), and the Realm vs. Realm combat. Those are the two major, major key differences. Besides, our lore is... better. The public quests are very different from any other MMO we've had out there. So normally when you get a quest from an NPC he says go kill ten dues, come back to me and then go kill twenty of some of his friends, and then come back to me and go kill this general. So those quests are still in the game - but we also did a Public Quest thing where if you go to an area and there're squigs running all over the place, there's probably a Public Quest that says kill thirty of those things. And you don't have to group up with anybody for this, you just have to be there and and I can be there and some other friends and others who aren't even in a group with us could all be doing this together.

After we kill thirty of these squigs or 100 or whatever the first stage is, it goes through another stage, and instead of having to go to an NPC to step into the next stage, it just goes right to it. So you do the next stage of that, and then you do the last stage which is some end boss. Then at the end of that, there's a loot drop that's a big glowing treasure chest. And then this scoreboard comes up that says how well you did in this Public Quest so you know exactly where you're going to place. Depending on how well you do you get items depending on how much damage you did or how much healing you did – your total contribution toward beating that Public Quest. That's one big thing and that's where you get a lot of items in PVE system – the Public Quest system.

In RvR, that is the open-world fighting, and our scenarios, which are the instance fighting, the major difference between us and... them is that they have 5 battlegrounds, we have 30 instances, and you can start RvR-ing right from the start. At level 1, if you hit the "scenario join" button right when you join, you can go right into a scenario immediately upon logging in if you want. You can level up your characters from PvP, we give you experience [and] items. You also get RvR Influence, back to the Public Quest system. Besides the item you get from DOING the Public Quest, you acquire "Influence." Around this hub of NPCs or "Chapters" we call them, there's 3 Public Quests associated with each one, and as you're doing this Public Quest, you build influence, which is like another way of leveling up your character just for that Chapter.

Sort of like Renown from Fable?

Yeah, sort of like Renown, or kind of like Faction, but not. As you level up your influence with those people, you can select items from that as well, so there's the items from Public Quests, there's items from regular quests, there's items from influence, and there's rewards and items from RvR. Again the big thing about RvR is as you're progressing your character through RvR you're unlocking really really good items. And our endgame content is based around how high of a renown rank you are. That's what our Player vs. Player level is – experience for that.

So you're gaining your PvP levels and you're gaining your RvR levels, all en route to fighting the King, and the King drops the ultimate gear. Nobody's beaten the King – yet. He's a tough cookie to crack, but that guy drops the ultimate gear. If you're walking around with King gear, you'll also see somebody walking around [with the gear] and you'll go "Oh my God, they beat the King," because that gear is entirely unique looking. It's like the difference between walking around in greens and walking around in purples and golds. You say, "Oh my God, he did some work to get that." So it's very rewarding in our game to do, whether you want to do [Player vs. Environment] or whether you want to do Player vs. Player. You get rewarded no matter what you do in our game, and actually if you do a mix of both, you tend to enjoy the game a lot more than just focusing purely on one thing. So we have a lot to offer depending on what kind of a player you are.

So in terms of Public Quests, they reset after someone does them, correct?

Yeah, there's three stages to every Public Quest - you can go through stage one and then you might not pass stage two. And then in a couple minutes it'll go back to stage one so you can try it again. If you get all the way through it, it takes about three to five minutes for the Public Quest to reset, and then it goes back to stage one. So if you really like the Public Quest or you just missed it, you can hang around and then do it again. A lot of times when I'm playing I'll use the Open Party system, which is a button you can click to see what groups are in your area. In that window, you can just hit the "join" button, and you can go right into somebody's group, and go run over to the PQ and join them. Sometimes when that happens you run in the tail end of a Public Quest. They're just on stage three, the last boss is at 50%, and you're like, "Ah, I just missed it." But then it resets in a couple of minutes, so you can start from scratch and go at it again.

Are there any plans to add quests that are one-of-a-kind, where if somebody kills a guy, he's gone forever?

We thought about doing "permadeath" quests I guess, but we would rather invest time in the repeatable content than the one-offs. The other thing about the one-offs is that you feel like you might have missed something. We do have our events that occur almost monthly now. We have the "Night of Murder" going on right now, which is in respect to the American holiday of Valentine's Day. We did "Keg's End" which was sort of like the New Year's Eve/Christmas Party thing, and we did our Halloween event, "Hallow's End." But we do events all the time, which are sort of like the one-shots, every year they come up. So those are sort of like the temporary you-can-do-those-for-a-little-bit quests.

And of course, Vigil Games is developing an MMO based on Warhammer 40K, which leads many gamers to question what the differences are between Warhammer Online and the Warhammer 40K Online franchises. So, first off, what is the reason for that difference, where one half of the Warhammer franchise belongs to a different company?

It's just licensing. We made an agreement with Games Workshop four years ago to do the fantasy side, which is just straight, regular old Warhammer. but other companies already had the rights to the 40K, so if you don't have the rights for it, you simply can't publish it. It's like somebody else trying to draw Spiderman, and Marvel going no no no, you can't draw that. It's kind of the same thing in video games. That's why you see that EA has The Lord of the Rings, and nobody else can do a single-player Lord of the Rings, but Turbine has The Lord of the Rings multiplayer license.

Do you see 40K as a direct competitor? How do you hope to differentiate your game?

It's gonna be a different type of game. I don't know, we haven't seen much from them yet, so we're not exactly sure. Obviously it's gonna be sci-fi, and we're fantasy. I'm hoping that we'll actually feed off of each other to a degree. People will wanna play our fantasy game and then they will probably wanna play the sci-fi 40K game, so I'm hoping, you know, everybody hopes that they subscribe to both of them. We wish everybody the best of luck on both sides.

Finally, what kinds of updates lie in Warhammer Online's future? Are there any particular areas that you'd like to improve upon?

We're always looking at improving performance. Me personally, I'm in charge of making RvR and open field more enjoyable. We're looking at adding more depth to our keeps and battlefield objectives systems. We just announced our Tomb Kings expansion, which is sort of like a free expansion. It's gonna be a huge dungeon that gonna be sort of reminiscent of Darkness Falls if you ever played [Dark Age of] Camelot. So the way it'll work is that there will be something that one Realm does to get access to the dungeon and something another realm does to get access to the dungeon taken away from them. So it'll be what we call "the purge" to a degree, if the Order had the dungeon for a while and they're all in there doing their quest and killing the monsters and doing all that stuff in there, Destruction can go ahead and do the trigger to let them get in. Then Destruction floods into the dungeon and wipes out all of the Order players and is like, "Get out of here, we own it now." So it was really cool and we're trying to redo that spirit of Darkness Falls from Dark Age, in that same vein. When you get to the dungeon you're like, "sweet let's rush in and kill everybody!" You don't think, "let's go do the monsters and let's go do the quest." It's like, "anybody that's in there, I wanna kill em to get em out." It's really really cool that we're gonna try to reproduce that. And that's what some of the players have been asking for. We read the forums, we give feedback all the time, so we're always doing improvements to the game.

The other big thing coming up are the Slayer and the Choppa. They are two new classes that are coming out that are melee DPS guys. if you're familiar with the lore at all, they're pretty much like Berserkers to a degree - they just run up and wail on people with axes. They are gonna be coming out in a couple of months, and they're shaping up to be pretty badass.

Well that's all I've got. Nice meeting you, thanks for the interview.

Nice meeting you too. You're welcome.

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